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Old Man of the Mountain

Book Review: While We Still Got Feet: New Poems by David Budbill


Published May 25, 2005 at 6:44 p.m.

Thirty-five years ago I came into this place to live / a simple life," David Budbill writes about his move to Wolcott's Judevine Mountain. "Thirty-five years of watching seasons come and go."

If you want to know what such a willful retreat from the world does to a man, pick up a copy of Budbill's flinty new volume of poetry, While We've Still Got Feet. As in the work of Gary Snyder or Jack Gilbert, here are lyrics sharpened by solitude's grindstone. None of them will make you bleed, but they have a curious singularity, like objects recently made, but constructed to resemble folklore.

In either case, the story they have to tell is ancient, so old that Budbill's models -- referred to throughout like touchstones or talismans -- are the ancient Chinese poets Han San and T'ao Yuan-ming. "Han Shan says, Death makes you a nameless ghost," Budbill writes in a typical passage. "What good will come of all your striving?"

If these Eastern teachers evoked a kind of wry astringency in their verse, Budbill has a country singer's laconic twang, a rootin' tootin' nihilism. Here I am, "Singing me songs / on Red Dust Road, / headed toward / dead," he announces in the volume's first poem. When he is not sounding his own Buddhist bardic yawp, Budbill sketches his surroundings. He raises an ear to the sound of trucks jake-breaking down a mountainside, and points out the shush of wind coming through a nearby copse of pines. Both are the sounds of the world passing him by, and he has apparently grown to like that.

The rest of While We've Still Got Feet depicts a Spartan life of incredible interior richness. Budbill describes cording wood, repairing bridges, and then retiring inside at the day's end to music and reading. "When day after day I think of nothing but what the next chore is, / when I go from clearing woods roads to sharpening a chain saw," he writes, warming to the pleasures of habit, "then, and only then, do I see the crippling power of mind, the curse of thought."

It wasn't always this way. Born in Cleveland, Budbill was educated at Muskingum College and at Columbia, then earned a Master's in Divinity from Union Theological Seminary. He is the son of a preacher's daughter. By training, birth and temperament, he's inclined to ponder the void. He just wasn't raised to live in it. It's no wonder there are so many contradictions in his work; he renounces mainstream pursuits but still finds himself drawn to worldly trappings, like ego, money and fame.

So when he gets a little preachy, it's easy to forgive. Because Budbill's often beating up on himself. Thirty-some odd years and it seems he is still surprised at the life he has chosen, the harsh remove of his surroundings. The blacktop is 20 miles away! These poems shout. The specters of what could have been -- tenure, accolades -- hover tantalizingly on the horizon like a mirage.

As a practicing Buddhist, Budbill is inclined to make a ritual out of outsmarting the mind's self-awareness, its gnawing tendency to pat itself on the back for refusing the here and now. The trick of these poems -- or to use a loftier word, their endeavor -- is to strip that awareness down, peel it away like bark from a tree, and leave the essential remains.

In this sense, a certain sameness of tone and subject creeps into the verse. Many of the poems rail against ambition, certainty, the self. Here is one:

All this ego

all this drive

to get somewhere


at the finish line

death sits

one leg

over the other

hands folded

in his lap

a little smirk

on his face.

Here is another:

It's the end of August and I'm tired.

The garden is tired. The grass is tired.

Everything is tired. We've all had

too much summer.

Bring on the cold. Bring on the frost.

Bring on all that death and destruction.

Let's have some quiet and some peace.

Let us rest. Give us emptiness.

You have to slow down to read and enjoy the variations between such poems. At first glance they seem to welcome the same thing -- death, oblivion, The End. Read closer, however, and differences arise. The first poem is adversarial, begrudging. Budbill admits he has been hoodwinked by death but also ropes us into the fellowship of the duped.

The second poem strikes a tone of resignation and peace: as the lines trickle down the page, Budbill's speaking voice softens and his "self" evaporates. By the poem's conclusion he has become part of the mist hovering in the wilderness around him. So much so that as the season changes, it seems odd he should remain.

This act of self-erasure is an intensely difficult thing to do -- perhaps more so in life than on the page. Still, While We've Still Got Feet is a stirring record of Budbill's commitment to living mindfully, simply and in concert with the world around him. He hasn't given up on life, simply reinvented what it means for him. Or he's still trying to:

"I'm over sixty," he writes. "Am I old enough now / to let go of my young-man, / white knuckle / grip / on dreams / of fame and fortune? Naw, not yet."

That's good news. We can look forward to reading more from him.

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